KOCHI: Bharatnatyam dancer Revanta Sarabhai, was in the city for a dance offering at the Thiruvannur Shiva Kshetram on Tuesday. The grandson of Mrinalini Sarabhai and son of Mallika Sarabhai, Revanta strives to innovate and present bharatanatyam performances that explore new themes which can engage and entertain a young audience. The dancer is also a choreographer and is also into acting, with four Gujarati films to his credit. Revanta has performed internationally, both independently and with the Darpana Performance Group.Revanta spoke to Express through an e-mail interview.
As a bharatanatyam dancer, who creates contemporary pieces with themes that vary from environment issues to long-distance relations, can you throw some light on the creative process?
From when I started learning dance at the age of five, I have done pieces from mythology, the stories of gods and goddesses, of wars and heroes, of the playful Krishna or the cosmic dance of Shiva. And while mythology is a powerful source, I also believe that we must take a relook at some of the myths that we hold so dear, to make it relevant to our lives today.
My grandmother, when she started her arts institution at Ahmedabad, she called it ‘Darpana’, which means mirror, because she deeply believed that the arts must be a reflection of society. I believe this to be true. Even if you look at my mother’s work, whether it is dance or theatre, she has used it as a medium to talk about things that matter to her, like gender discrimination, and giving a voice to the voiceless. With my work too, this holds true. When I moved to London for higher studies and to start my career in choreography, I felt the need to tell stories that were relevant to me, and therefore to my generation. And as I started this journey, I began to realise that bharatanatyam is such a versatile language and can be used to tell stories of any kind without stepping outside the boundaries of the form itself. For example, for a new Varnam that I am creating, the new piece will follow the composition of a traditional Varnam itself with only the subject being contemporary.
As for the process, I work in collaboration with my mother, and we write new poems in English, get it translated into the traditional Tamil and then set to a Carnatic composition. Thereafter, I do the choreography.
What does it entail to shift from traditional narratives to new styles?
The style that I have learnt from my grandmother and mother, is the traditional Pandanallur style of bharatanatyam. Even in my new work, I stick to the same style, without mixing it with anything else or feeling the need to step outside the form. What is contemporary perhaps, is the story itself. To give you an example: in the traditional repertoire, there is a Padam called Varughalamo by Nandanar, who was an outcast and remained a Shiva bhakta. When people spoke of Nandanar, they often spoke of his bhakti (belief) with great regard. Even though Nandanar was an outcast and wasn’t allowed into the temple, he had such immense bhakti for Shiva.
As I heard the story, I wondered why no one asked why Nandanar was not allowed into the temple. Shouldn’t that be the real question? If he had so much bhakti for Shiva, then why was he not allowed into the temple? And so in my retelling of it, I have added a new paragraph at the end of the traditional composition, where Nandanar says, so much time has passed and so many things in the world have changed, yet me and my kin are still where we are and he tells Shiva, I will not ask to be let me in to your temple anymore, but I will give you a chance to right all the wrongs by asking if you will come out of the temple and visit me.
This firmly roots it in today’s time. This I believe is the question we should be asking of ourselves today. So in that sense, my style is very much the traditional Pandanallur style, but what is contemporary is the outlook to the traditional stories. I also believe it is important as an artist to bring of oneself and one’s questions and dilemmas to the art that one practices. Otherwise, it ceases to be a living breathing art form and remains stuck in time.
As someone who tries to make the classical art form accessible even to the uninitiated, by displaying the meaning of each piece in English, do talk about the connect that you create with a younger audience?
There are two things that I think makes my work connect with a younger audience. Firstly, of course, is the contemporary narrative. When I talk about what matters to me, I am also talking about what matters to the young generation. I have noticed that after my shows, many young people, including young dancers come and thank me for talking about things that matter to them. Secondly, very often, watching bharatanatyam for someone who doesn’t understand Tamil, is like watching a foreign-language film with no subtitles. They rely heavily on the visual aspect to understand what the dancer is trying to communicate. This often means that there is a lot that is lost in translation. A solution is to project the subtitles of the song during the performance. It is a very simple thing but it greatly enhances the experience, because as a viewer, you are no longer guessing. They do this in many parts of the world. I have been to an Italian opera that has English subtitles and I realise that understanding the lyrics is as important as enjoying the music itself. I think this has made a younger audience connect with my work.
Is this your first time in Kerala during Onam?
As you already know, my grandmother, Mrinalini, is from Kerala and I have visited our ancestral home Vadakkath, many many times. I have also performed in Kerala before. My wife’s ancestral home is in Kozhikode and this time we decided to come and celebrate Onam here with family. This is the first time that I am here for Onam.
You are also into acting. Did that passion stem from the dance?
Along with dancing, which I started at the age of five, I also started acting in theatre at the age of 12 and so transition into acting and films felt very natural. At heart, I am a storyteller and some stories are best told through the medium of dance and some through cinema. I am currently working on my script of a young Muslim boy who discovers bharatanatyam and the various battles he has to face to continue to do what he loves. I am in the process of finding a producer.
How do you deal with the huge expectations brought about by your surname?
When I was much younger, I struggled a bit with the huge expectations that come with the legacy that I am born into. I guess it depends on how you look at it - it has also opened many doors for me. Now, however, I have found my artistic voice and I can put both of those aside and do the best I can in everything I do and not worry so much about the expectations.